Racing Club Lens 3 Chamois Niort 1

Lens is a town of about 37,000 people and is just an hour’s drive from Calais; as a town it’s not much to look at, but then it was virtually annihilated during World War One, although that had an upside as it now has a fabulous 1920’s art deco railway stationOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA featuring four beautiful mosaic friezes depicting the heavy industry made possible by the coal that was hewn from the ground below this town and those around it. This is the land of Emile Zola’s Germinal, a fabulous book which you should all read when not reading this blog. Staying with the arts, Lens is now possibly more famous for having an outpost of the Louvre museum, built to help regenerate the area, the economy of which was devastated by the closure of its coal mines in the 1980’s. Although we can’t blame Thatcher for these mine closures, she probably would have gladly taken the credit seeing as she didn’t seem to care much for coalminers or the French. But most of all, Lens has a football club with a large and fanatical fanbase. Racing Club Lens is in Ligue 2 and this season their average home attendance has been 28,966, making them the fifth best supported club in France behind only PSG, Marseille, Lyon and Lille, all of whom are Ligue 1 clubs.

Tonight is the last match of the league season and Lens, along with RC Strasbourg, SC Amiens, ESTAC Troyes, Stade Brestois and Olympique Nimes have a chance of getting into the promotion/relegation play-off with the team placed third from bottom in Ligue 1, or they could get automatic promotion by finishing second or as Champions. Lens are currently fourth in the league table or classement, two points behind first placed Strasbourg, but they must win and hope that at least one out of Strasbourg, Amiens and Troyes does not. Tonight’s opponents at the magnificent Felix Boleart Delelis stadium are Chamois Niort, placed 10th in the league and as journalistic cliché tells us, they have “nothing to play for but pride” and are likely to be “at the beach already”; but they are a half decent side having hauled themselves up to mid-table after occupying the bottom places earlier in the season. This is surely the most exciting end of season scenario of any professional league in Europe.

Kick-off is not until 8.30 but my wife and I arrive at the stadium at about five o’clock where there are oceans of free car parking, which also serve the Louvre museum. Already the place is busy with bars and food stalls doing a good trade, but not as good as the club shop which is absolutely heaving. I can’t resist getting a T-shirt and scarf34739197331_67aa8da030_o to help me join in with what could be a momentous evening; my wife rolls her eyes. Leaving my purchases back in the car along with the wine and beer I’d already bought from a nearby Intermarche supermarket, we make the short walk into town to take a look at that marvellous railway station. On the way we pass Chez Muriel, a small bar decorated with red, black and gold balloons, the colours of RC Lens, it’s a popular pre-match haunt for Lens fans and there are several people stood out on the pavement drinking beer. Opposite the station another bar also already seems to have standing room only. Having taken my fill of those mosaics rather than any beer, I watch a TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) pull away and think how much like the HS2 it probably is, the only difference being it actually exists and has done for years; French Republic 1 British Monarchy 0.

Strolling away from Gare de Lens we head for the town hall (Hotel de Ville) and then turn left along the main street, which leads down directly to the Stade Felix Boleart and provides a perfect view of the top of Le Stade34830837016_33c3eed68a_o. That’s another thing the French understand, vistas at the ends of streets. There are more bars along the length of the main street, particularly at the stadium end. Many of the bars are decorated in club colours, most of the drinking is taking place out on the street. Some tables have ‘beer engines’ on them34706922842_06291a0e94_o clear towers of beer with a dispenser at the bottom that looks like a football; this is beer drinking that is dedicated to football. This is France, but it is northern France, and it shares the beer drinking culture of Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia and Britain; we are all northern Europeans together, but your dumb Brexiteers wouldn’t have known that. Lens and the towns around it could have been transposed from the coalfields of South Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire or the Ruhr valley in Germany. For a boy from Suffolk some of this lot seem a bit rough and they probably are, brutalised as they or their forefathers were by that hard industrial heritage. Football was the escape from the brutality of the mine and along with a belly full of beer it still is the escape from whatever gets us down, life for instance.

Close to the ground amongst some trees a bunch of blokes who look old enough to know better are setting off some very loud firecrackers, people flinch but take no notice; the police aren’t bothered and four of them on massive white horsesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that look like their antecedents were at Agincourt (it’s not that far away) just stroll on by up toward the main street. If this was Alderman Rec’ in Ipswich there would be pandemonium “Oooh, you can’t do that here.”

There is still plenty of time to go until kick-off and we return to the car for me to slip on my pristine RC Lens T-shirt. We finally head for our seats, which cost just 17 Euros each and are at the far end of the stadium behind the goal, in the stand called Trannin. We wend our way through the ever increasing crowds. As I walk on I am handed a political leaflet about forthcoming local elections . At the top of the steps that lead to the Trannin there is a promotion by the Pasquer bakery company and attractive young women hand us little packets containing a small brioche roll34685538902_8d5fbce14f_o with a stick of chocolate stuffed through the middle. It’s a new product from Pasquer called “Match” and the packaging tells me it’s given away free and is not for re-sale; another business plan down the tubes. Having acquired a dessert I need a main course and there is a big friterie truck right in front of me at the back of the stand, so chips and beer it is34060006543_f74d4c6aeb_o. Like I said, this is northern France, chips and beer is what these French people want and it’s what they get. Also, weirdly, the beer outside the stadium is alcoholic, inside it’s not; no wonder it’s busy out here. I go back to get some mayonnaise to put on my chips, as is the custom in these parts. I pump the dispenser and nothing happens, so pump it five, six, seven times more and then it sprays out all over the place accompanied by a nasty farting noise. I get mayonnaise on my sleeve, but there is some on my chips too so it’s not all bad and the bloke stood next to me doesn’t seem to notice that he has mayonnaise splattered down the side of his coat. Sniggering stupidly, but at the same time apologetically, I make a strategic withdrawal.34739078831_2c325b0136_o

Full of chips and beer we enter the stadium through the automated turnstile and I pick up a copy of the free match programme; it’s just a folded A3 sheet but it gives you the two squads, the table and the permutations that will see Lens promoted, and that’s all anyone needs; save the vacuous interviews for the football papers. We climb up to our seats in

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the the second tier from where the view is fantastic because the stadium is fantastic. The Stade Felix Bolaert Delilis consists of four steep stands that tower over the pitch, they are all painted white, with white metal mesh cladding at the back and sides. When I last came to a game in Lens in 2005, as big as they were some of the stands had amazing wooden roofs; a lesson in sustainable construction, but the refurbishment for the 2016 European Championships sadly did away with those, although the result is nevertheless breath-taking. Each corner of the ground is marked by a soaring spike which looks like it might be a floodlight pylon, but isn’t, the spikes are there to unify the four stands. Once again the French demonstrate their clear ability and desire to make an architectural statement with a football stadium, something desperately lacking in Britain; although Ipswich’s Sir Bobby Robson stand is a happy exception, they just need to tie the other three stands in with it.

Once inside, predictably the stadium is rocking; it is full with the attendance announced as 37,700. From every stand the thrill of the occasion is palpable. Scarves are held aloft and the club anthem is sung with gustoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. Flares are lit amongst the ultras who occupy the lower tier of the Marek Xerces stand at the side of the pitch; they wave banners and flags ceaselessly. We all have coloured A1 paper sheets beneath our seats which we hold aloft and the stadium is a sea of red and gold; the blood and the gold (le sang et or); it’s loud, very loud and it’s bloody brilliant, like blood and gold, naturellement. The stadium announcer tells us the team, announcing each player’s first name and then pausing as in unison the crowd shout back his surname. Lens are kicking towards Trannin and at 37 minutes past eight they are top of the league as the brilliantly named Kermit ErasmusOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (middle name Romeo) smashes the ball home after an initial shot is blocked. Man, this is good! The railway line from that marvellous station runs behind the main stand and the trains hoot their horns as they go past,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA sounding “Allez Lens” as best they can. Five minutes later and it’s not quite so good, the word is Amiens have scored at Reims and are now top, although Lens remain second and therefore still in line for automatic promotion. At a quarter to eight the mood shifts a little again, a corner is nodded on at the near post and Cristian barges through to head in a second goal for Lens, but as he does so Strasbourg score at home to Bourg-en-Bresse and Lens are knocked back in to the play-off (Barrage) position. But Erasmus and Cristian are the goalscorers, God must be on Lens’ side tonight.

Despite having dropped from top to third Lens are still better off than they were at the start of the night and a bit after ten to eight our mobile phones tell us that Troyes are losing at Sochaux and by half-time they are losing 2-0. The mood remains confident, 2-0 up and even if that means a play-off match, what team is going to fancy coming to Lens? This is the most fun I have had all season, this is football as it should be with a slightly lairy, almost insanely passionate crowd doing their all to support their team, willing them to win. I remember football like this in the 1970’s with scarves held aloft and twirled above our heads; Lens fans still do this and a banner at the far end reads “ Magic Fans”, that is so 1970’s, the age before things were awesome or cool, when they were “Magic”. Bringing things up to date however, one banner reads “Bollaert Boys” whilst a short distance away another reads “Girls 2009” showing that sexual equality has reached the spectators. Mai ’68 wasn’t in vain. Incidentally, the French clubs take their women’s teams much more seriously than we seem to in Britain. Nevertheless, sexism still seems to be alive and well as dancing girls adorn the pitch at half time and an all-male shoot-out takes place, although sexual politics don’t seem to affect the raffle of a new Nissan car amidst a minor display of non-gender specific pyrotechnics.

The fervour of the crowd remains strong as the second half begins and a pair of rather drunk young lads make a spectacle of themselves whilst trying to urge even greater support from the crowd. A female steward instructs them to go and sit down and obediently they walk away, but as soon as she is gone they joyously and amusingly return, skipping with puckish delight.34738977411_d2f8d1f6ce_o They stagger and wave and entertain looking like a pissed-up Ant and Dec whilst the rest of the crowd hurl screwed up programmes and those coloured pieces of paper at their heads.

Back on the pitch and within a quarter of an hour Kermit Erasmus alarmingly tries to cancel out his goal as his under hit back pass leads to a penalty for Niort; the team from the far west of France score to add further to the tension and then they begin to show some of the form that took them away from the relegation zone and Lens start to look nervous. Lens manager Alain Casanova doesn’t hang about and makes changes, the first one of which is to replace Kermit Erasmus with Abdelrafik Garard. But then a wave of joy crashes through the crowd as we learn of a Reims equaliser against Amiens and Lens are back into second place; and there they sit until just three minutes before full-time when the news is that Troyes have come back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 at Sochaux and Lens are once again in the play-off position. It’s not ideal, but it will do and Cristian adds another goal in the second minute of time added on just to be sure that Niort won’t be emulating Lazarus. A minute later the referee Monsieur Letexier calls time on what has been an enthralling game and we are left to wait for the final score to come in from Reims. All the other teams in the top six have won but Amiens are drawing at seventh placed Reims, which leaves Lens in third and the play-off. The Lens players remain on the pitch.

Noooo! The man in front of me holds his head in his hands and curses incomprehensibly. Jaws drop all around, there is sadness, there is anger, there is disbelief. In the sixth minute of time added on Emmanuel Bourgaud has scored for Amiens pushing them up into second place, sending Troyes down in to the play-off place and condemning Lens to another season in Ligue 2. Mon Dieu! I am shocked,although I had half wanted Amiens to go up having seen them earlier this year, I feel like I have been folded into the heart of the Lensoises tonight; I have cheered and gasped and drank and eaten chips with them, I have worn the T-shirt and squirted mayonnaise at them; I feel their pain, their numbness. Je suis un Lensoise! This is awful. How can something that was so good so quickly feel so hollow?

Most of the crowd stay in the stands to applaud their team, in spite of their disappointment. These people are true supporters. They show no need for recriminations, they love their club. We leave them to their grief, we were Lensoises for an evening only and a Pompey fan and an Ipswich fan cannot authentically share that grief, we are frauds really; they have our sympathy but we must leave them to it. We slip away, back to our car. It’s 10:30 but we are staying 40 minutes away in Lille and we have another match to go to tomorrow night and it’ll take a friggin’ age to get out of the car park. Stay tuned for the next not quite as exciting instalment, Lille v Nantes.

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Colchester United 2 Yeovil Town 0

It is the last Saturday of the football league season, well sort of; in fact it is one of two last Saturdays of the football season and a last Sunday. Thanks to the need to create a television extravaganza out of the resolution of the promotion and relegation places the third division finished last Sunday, the second division finishes with noon kick-offs tomorrow and the fourth division finishes today with all the games kicking off at five-thirty, a time when most civilised people should be thinking about what they’re having for tea. The first division (I think they call it the Premier League nowadays) finishes I don’t know when and I don’t care; I don’t suppose Leicester will be winning it this year though, it’ll be back in the oily grasp of one of the usual cartel no doubt.
It’s a bit of a grey uninteresting day for the time of year, but with the occasional burst of sunshine, which conveniently is how I would sum up the season I have just witnessed following mostly Ipswich Town and Colchester United. I take the train to Colchester sitting across the gangway from of a man in a sports jacket and jeans and neatly coiffured hair and his female companion who is dressed similarly, but her jacket is more tailored and the jeans more tapered and a bit too tight if I’m honest; it’s not a look I would endorse for either of them, if asked. I sneeze from the effects of their perfume and body spray which mingle poisonously.

Arriving in Colchester I make the short walk to the Bricklayers Arms and drink £7.30’s worth of Adnams Oyster Stout, which sounds a lot when written like that. I drink one pint indoors and one in the garden, where I risk lung disease from the smokers. The pub is busy and I joke with the bloke on the table next to me about how long he is going to have to wait for his mate to come back with another beer. Eventually everyone is drinking and talking football. “He’s a good player that Alves”… I like that Spanish football”…. “Still a lot of diving though”…”That Luiz, wasn’t he good at free-kicks?” …”Yeah, he scored a good one earlier in the season” ….” Who’d he play for before then?” ….”PSG and Benfica”. Worn down by the conversation people clear off to get the bus to the Weston Homes Out In The Middle of Nowhere Stadium. As I leave the pub a bill board of Pierce Brosnan33751939113_3657b1eba5_o makes me laugh out loud as I recall his Texan accent from a trailer I saw for his new BT TV epic serial; but with his bushy grey beard he just looks a bit of a twat too.

As I get to the bus stop I’ve just missed one bus, but having parted with £2.50 I get to choose whatever seat I want on the top-deck of the next one. 34432079531_5ee09c1af6_oThis bus soon fills up and then we’re off and then we’re there; it’s not far. A young lad in the seat behind me is incredulous as the bus draws up outside the stadium and he sees the car park and crowds beyond. “Cor! That’s really good for League Two” he says with the enthusiasm of youth. “Yeah, but it’s all glory hunters today innit” replies his slightly older and more worldly wise friend and indeed the older boy is right. Having struggled by on gates on three thousand for most of the season , there are more than twice as many here today (6,565 is the official figure) as Colchester have a chance of making the play-offs, along with about half the other teams in the division.

After purchasing a programme (£3) I join one of34521082746_bfe9c98d07_o four long queues into the South Stand, standing behind a fat man with a very growly voice. At the back of the stand on the way from the bus stops a man in uniform with a little green Land Rover is recruiting for the Army. It seems a bit unfair to try and recruit from Col U fans who it seems are already an endangered species without actively putting them in harm’s way. I don’t suppose we will be hearing “Billy don’t be a hero” played over the public address system this evening.
The queue moves slowly, and finally at the third attempt my bar-coded ticket unlocks the turnstile. After using the minimalist, almost “Scandi-style” stainless steel and breeze-block urinals I take up my seat not long before the game kicks-off. The game begins, I watch the opening exchanges carefully, intently even, but then see a steward I know who is peering up into the stand, looking for ‘troublemakers’ most likely . She sees me too and we give a little wave diffusing the intensity of the start of the game. Phew.
The atmosphere today is atypical of a Col U match; I can’t hear those echoing calls from lone voices abusing the opposition and giving quirky encouragement; if they are here they are lost in the murmur of an additional three and half thousand voices, 34431994831_7b94f39b19_opeople unfamiliar with the etiquette that demands you sound off at football. It’s not a bad game though and Col U are looking the better team and with a half hour gone that provokes one spectator, presumably anxious about a play-off place and therefore frustrated that the U’s haven’t scored yet, to break ranks and shout critically “we’re going backwards”. In England the concept of just keeping possession of the ball is still one that a lot of people struggle with.

Then, at about five past six, a space appears, enough to allow No 31 Tarique Fosu-Henry a clear sight of the Yeovil goal; he shoots, he scores and Colchester are winning and for the time being are in 7th position in the league, and in the play-offs.34431988691_2b98262141_o “Layer Road” is all of a quiver now and a few people are on their feet whilst the stewards gather at one end of the stand to quell any over-excitement.  34431963621_31fee1312a_oFifteen minutes later and the voice from the public address system still sounds unfeasibly excited as he announces that the fourth official has indicated there will be at least 2 minutes of added on time to be played before it’s time for a cuppa.

With the half-time whistle I dash back to the Scandi-lav just in time to have to avoid a collision with a woman turning around and rushing out in a state of sheer panic. She’d taken a wrong turn, I guess, I hope. Having left the khasi and then spoken to my steward friend I return to my seat to peruse the programme, enjoying a couple of the names in the Yeovil squad, starting with their number four who rejoices under the name of Bevis Mugabi, which is wonderful and beautifully reminds us that the odious president of Zimbabwe is Butthead Mugabe. Two other fine names belong to Brandon Goodship and Ollie Bassett, Bertie’s brother.

The start of the second half witnesses mental flip-flopping from the two teams as Colchester seem to switch from thinking “Yay, we’re winning” to “No, we have something to lose” whilst Yeovil switch from “Oh crap, we’re losing” to “We’re losing, that is an affront to our sporting sensibilities”. Hence Yeovil, or the Glovers as they are known, take the upper hand, gloved presumably and metaphorically they throw a few punches or lay down the gauntlet. It doesn’t last long though and Colchester’s Drey (yeah, like the squirrel nest) Wright is sent through on goal with just the goalie to beat. But Jonathan Maddison’s gloves, hopefully made in Yeovil, are not tested as Drey simply misses the goal.

The excitement subsides a bit as the scoreboard tells us about forthcoming Status Quo and Bon Jovi tribute acts and the man next to me folds his arms across his chest because it’s getting a bit chilly, or perhaps because he doesn’t like tribute acts. I notice that Yeovil are playing up to a West Country stereotype by advertising the name of Thatcher’s cider on their shirts and then the scoreboard tells us that we could “Get close to the action for as little as 10p a day”, which makes me wonder if there is £36.50’s worth of stuff I need or even want to know about Col U in the course of a year. At the edge of pitch an advertising board says “Macron” ;34562258905_5849f92e67_o it’s good to know that we’re not supporting that dreadful Le Pen woman in tomorrow’s French presidential election.

Col U are still in the play-offs but not too much is happening and on 72 minutes some supporters desperate to cheer something celebrate a goal for Accrington Stanley at Stevenage, another team with a chance of qualifying for a play-off place. But there is a better reason to celebrate four minutes later as the ball is pulled back across goal leaving Tarique Fosu-Henry in sufficient space for a second time to score for a second time.  A lairy looking character runs onto the pitch and is hauled away by stewards.

Everything is going swimmingly for Col U or is it? Word arrives that just before Colchester scored their second goal Carlisle United had taken the lead away at Exeter City, pushing Colchester United down into 8th place, outside the play-off places. A pall of near silence falls over “Layer Road”. It’s now quiet enough to hear an anxious voice shout “tackle him”, although he’d better advised to try and cheer on Exeter City. The dream is fading and the part-time supporters first drift and then flood away, 34400546302_31fa352b77_oleaving a row of empty seats in front of me along with a pile of empty sweet wrappers but taking with them the promise of tooth decay, obesity and type two diabetes.

With the final whistle I head post-haste for the bus back to the railway station. Col U played well and deserve their lap of honour in front of their fans, but stuff that I want to get home. My wife has been keeping me updated about her team Portsmouth, who have won the Division Four championship this afternoon and champagne is once again in the fridge just waiting for me to open it for her. Play Up Pompey!

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Later that evening I fall asleep on the bed fully clothed.

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Ipswich Town 3 Newcastle United 1

It is Easter Monday, and it is a weekend of two league matches for every team. Traditionally, at least one of the games is a local derby. In keeping with tradition, the Football League, or EFL as it now calls or rather brands itself, sent Ipswich to Burton-On-Trent on Good Friday and has today paired them with Newcastle United the club in the second division that is furthest away from Ipswich. There’s nothing the fixture planners at EFL seem to like better than the thought of football supporters making long journeys in Bank Holiday traffic. But happily for Ipswich supporters the match today is at Portman Road, so what do they care.

This afternoon I am in the company of a Newcastle United supporter who has driven from Stockport, but he forsakes his car to make the final leg of the journey by train, because it seems like the responsible thing to do. My wife has joined us because she wants to meet this ‘Geordie’ who has impressed her by goading me on Facebook. 33944499342_be7ecabcc4_oFrom the railway station the three of us stroll up Portman Road towards the St Jude’s Tavern. It’s about 1:30 and Portman Road is much busier than usual at this time on a match day. Zero the sniffer dog is out and about and so are plenty of strangers in black and white striped shirts. It’s somehow appropriate that the Newcastle United kit should be monochrome because all their greatest moments were back in the days of black and white film.

There is already a good trade at the kiosks for match day programmes. Today has been anointed ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (presumably because he managed both clubs and was a Newcastle supporter as a boy) and the programme is a 100 page ‘special’ which includes a Sir Bobby Robson tribute. It costs a quid more than usual and a donation from the programme sales will go to the Bobby Robson Foundation. Also celebrating the day is the local paper, which is selling ‘Bobby Robson Goodie Bags’. The paper flogs ordinary, anonymous ‘goody bags’ at most games, so I anticipate may be a Bobby Robson novelty hat or a plastic effigy of the great man in this one; but for a pound all that’s on offer is the usual copy of the East Anglian Daily Times, a bottle of water and a packet of crisps all in a clear polythene bag.

Up at St Jude’s Tavern we chat and decide the result doesn’t matter as long as there are plenty of incidents in the game to make us laugh. St Jude’s is busy with pre-match drinkers, but from the long list of real beers 33289899543_015258db88_othere is only time to sample two before we have to head back round the corner and down the hill to Portman Road. The streets behind the stands are thronged with folk going to the match, hurrying along to their allotted turnstile; it’s like a real life version of LS Lowry’s ‘Going to the match’, or it would be if it wasn’t for the modern obesity epidemic. It will be a big gate today with the club having given season ticket holders the chance to buy up to four additional seats for a tenner each; added to which of course it is a Bank Holiday, it is ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (I feel like there should be a cheer after I type that) and the visitors are Newcastle United, the best supported team in the division. The ‘perfect storm’ is avoided however, as Ipswich have been rubbish this season and so there is no local ‘feel good factor’ and consequently the official attendance is over 4,500 short of capacity at 25,684.

We part company with our Newcastle supporting friend as he heads off to join those of his ilk in the Cobbold Stand, whilst my wife and I head for the monastic calm of the Co-op Stand upper tier. Soothed by the balm that is Sir Bobby Robson day, the biggest crowd of the season is largely a happy one and there isn’t the toxic, moronic, vitriolic atmosphere of the derby game with Norwich; the only other time more than 20,000 attended Portman Road this season. Once the game starts it becomes apparent that this could be the best Ipswich have played all season. Newcastle are frankly disappointing considering they have been top of the league most weeks since last August, but Ipswich give a far better account of themselves than usual and there is no injustice as they take the lead courtesy of Freddie Sears just a few minutes before half-time . However, there has been a private party going on in the seat next to me since about a quarter past three, for that is when my Pompey owning wife (she’s a shareholder) learned that Portsmouth had scored at Notts County, potentially clinching promotion to the Third Division. She’s barely paid attention to what’s happening in front of her since then, being consumed with what another team of Blues are doing to some another team of Magpies 225 kilometres away in Nottingham.

At half-time I find it is necessary to run the gauntlet of the sickly fragrance of the urinal deodoriser blocks that are so redolent of football stadia. Along with frying onions, the whiff of ‘urinal cake’ always conjures up the thrill of the professional football for me. Relieved, I return to my seat in time to catch the tail end of another tribute to Sir Bobby Robson in the form of some competitive cheerleading, 33301970703_13182d8c3e_zas a dozen or more girls in white shorts and tops and a few boys in tracky bottoms jump and throw themselves about in honour of Sir Bobby in time to some energetic music, including an up-tempo version of Sir Bobby’s favourite ‘My Way’.

The second half continues in a similar vein to the first with Newcastle still disappointing and possibly still missing their 1970’s striker John Tudor, who the historian in me would have loved to have seen line up alongside Marcus Stewart. But in the 62nd minute Newcastle all of sudden and without warning cut through the Ipswich team ‘like a knife through butter’ leaving former Town starlet Daryl Murphy with a chance he can’t miss, and he doesn’t. However, nothing really changes but the score and after another seven minutes David McGoldrick restores Ipswich’s advantage as Freddie Sears’ cross carves open the Newcastle defence albeit with just a hint of offside.
Without any sense of irony or apparent memory of the many matches that they have witnessed in more or less total silence, the Ipswich supporters in the Sir Bobby Robson stand 34008874062_e314998022_ochant “You’re not singing anymore” to the 1,900 odd Newcastle fans who, it has to be said, aren’t singing anymore. Meanwhile 225 kilometres to the northwest, Notts County equalised not long after half-time and the Pompey party next to me is for the time being on hold.

Ipswich are playing pretty well and if either team is likely to score again it is them. The taciturn Town fans are thawing out and some of them in the East of England Co-operative Stand dare to break into a rhythmic clap as their team passes, moves and generally threatens the Magpie’s goal in the way that proper football teams do. Then Portsmouth take the lead through Jamal Lowe; the afternoon moves up a gear and does so again on the cusp of time-added-on as Lowe scores Pompey’s third and three minutes into time-added-on Ipswich also get their third and most satisfying goal with the poetically named Emrys Huws despatching an inevitably spectacular volley from a lonely position at the far post. The game ends soon after and the Town support is as ecstatic as it knows how to be and Portsmouth, the biggest fan-owned club in the Football League are promoted back to Division Three after four seasons.

We meet up with our friend from the North again at the railway station and I offer him my condolences; to his credit he takes the result like a man, or at least like someone who has supported an under-achieving football club all of his life. However, Sir Bobby Robson and his day notwithstanding, in my household it is the Portsmouth result that really matters today and at home later that evening a champagne cork pops.

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Needham Market 0 Havant & Waterlooville 0

Needham Market is a very small town just nine miles from Ipswich; it is home to about four and a half thousand people and Needham Market Football Club.

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For a long time (90 years) the football club minded its own business and merely kicked about in local Suffolk leagues and then the Eastern Counties League. But in 2010 the Eastern Counties League Championship was nabbed and five years later so was the Ryman League North Championship. So today Needham finds itself in the Ryman League Premier League, which is quite something for a club from such a small town and they now get to travel all over the south-east corner of England.

 
The trip along the A14 to Needham is quick and easy but the town also benefits from an hourly train service from Ipswich. If you go by train you not only help to save the planet but you also get to use Needham Market railway station, built in 1849, a thing of beauty and a joy ever since. From the station it’s a gentle uphill walk to Bloomfields, Needham’s rustically charming home since 1996. It’s a typically bright and breezy early Spring afternoon and today The Marketmen as they are known are at home to Havant & Waterlooville from HampshireOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, whose nickname is The Hawks. It costs £10 to watch this standard of non-league football and for another £2 a programme can be had. The teams enter the arena to the strains of Oasis’s, ‘Roll with it’. The Hawks are second the in the league table and Needham third; anything might happen so to ‘roll with it’ seems like wise counsel.
The Hawks have a good following in the crowd of 434 and they have mostly taken up residence in the barn-like covered terrace behind one goal, known as the David (Dillon) Lockwood Stand. Havant and Waterlooville are towns just outside Portsmouth and on today’s evidence their supporters are a kind of mini version of the Pompey fans. They keep up an impressive din in the first half with a number of well adapted versions of classic songs. The first one up, to the country and western tune of Country Rose begins with a namecheck for player Jordan Rose but goes on to provide helpful detail about local geography “ Jordan Rose take me home, To the place where I belong, Westleigh Park, Near Rowlands Castle, Jordan Rose take me home”. Having such a long name as Havant & Waterlooville might be seen as a hindrance to imagining catchy chants but this is overcome with some nifty editing such as “We love you Havant, ‘looville; We love you Havant, ‘looville; We love you Havant, ‘looville; Oh Havant and ‘looville”. It’s just a shame ‘looville sounds like another way of saying toilet town.
The entertainment in the first half was largely off the field, although Havant did have a shot after about twenty minutes which was saved and the re-bound was headed into the net, but disallowed thanks to a zealous linesman; a goal for either side would have been nice really. Strangely the disallowed goal incited one Needham fan to turn to the Havant supporters, grin inanely and shout “Who are ya? Who are ya?” This was a somewhat odd and unnecessary question given that the away supporters had been loudly singing about Havant & Waterlooville since kick-off. Some people just don’t pay attention.
Unfazed by this solitary outburst Havant continued with their repertoire producing what seemed like a faithful rendition of “Under the Moon of Love” with no references to any Hampshire football clubs or players, but I could be wrong because the voices of some of the ‘choir’ were a little slurred. Following on was a version of “Glad All Over” but substituting the words “and I’m feeling glad all over” with “and we’ve got Ryan Woodford”. This capacity to celebrate through the medium of song otherwise unheard of players with the most prosaic of surnames is one of the joys of lower league football. The songs of Havant and Waterlooville had been the highlight of the first half and overall it had been a bit like watching a match at Portman Road with the home supporters looking on in complete silence whilst the away supporters thoroughly enjoyed themselves. What’s wrong with Suffolk people?
Having moved to a point not far from the tea bar as the half time whistle went OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was able to avoid the worst of the queue and settled down at a Yogi Bear style picnic table with a pound’s worth of tea to read the programme. The advertisements were especially impressive, in particular the full page colour one on the back page for “Certified high quality recycled aggregates for all your building and resurfacing projects”. This contrasted nicely with that for Boux Avenue, purveyors of lingerie, nightwear and accessories which featured a picture of a big-breasted brunette wearing a cross between a brassiere and chiffon mini-dress. Finally, there was an advert for Mark J Morsley & Associates, financial advisors, which would be very boring were it not for the fact that Mark Morsley is the Needham manager , though sans the letter ‘J’, but it has to be the same bloke; though he looks more like a financial advisor than a football manager. What that assortment of advertisements says about the type of people who the promotional team think attend Needham games I am not sure. But I like to think that the old boys in caps who make up a good part of the crowd are the target audience for all three; financially careful lotharios with a penchant for extravagant DIY.
Half-time brought a change of ends for teams and supporters with Havant fans now taking over the seated Les Ward stand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhilst Needham had the ‘kop’ behind the other goal which at last inspired a handful to once or twice shout ‘Come on Needham’ or something like it. Meanwhile the Havant fans were joined in the stand by two overweight, middle aged blokes in matching blue suits and blue and yellow striped ties. These two most stereotypical, small time football club directors had sat in their dedicated seats in the main stand OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAduring the first half, but were now moving amongst the people. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother of the wonderful and yet also slightly amusing and at the same time slightly worrying things about non-league football is the presence of blokes in suits and club ties, all doing their bit for the club most laudably, but also rather anachronistically, it’s all so stuffy and respectable; it’s like the 1960’s never happened. Why can’t they just dress as if they’re going to a football match like everyone else?
The Havant supporters were becoming more and more slurred but Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson was still recognisable as they sang “Here’s to you Lee Molyneux, Havant loves you more than you will know, woh,oh,oh”. A Havant supporter succeeded in heading an errant Needham clearance over the hedge and the Havant centre forward was spoken to by the referee after the Needham goalkeeper and a defender collided; I expect he had sniggered, which could be deemed contrary to the FA’s ‘Respect’ campaign. The two corpulent directors left the stand for the board room to a chorus of “Off for a sandwich, You’re going off for a sandwich” when in reality it looked like they had already eaten a couple of plates full.
Supporters adapting popular songs, old blokes in flat caps, stereotypical club officials and a goalless draw; it’s a great game is football.33546549552_12ea903805_z

Colchester United 0 Portsmouth 4

It’s the 11th of March and today there is a hint that Spring is springing into life. Frogs are clambering over one another in an orgiastic frenzy of amphibious, reptile love in my garden pond and standing outside I can actually feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms. It’s Saturday morning and life is sweet. A car ride, a train ride , a few glasses of Adnams Old Ale in the Bricklayers Arms (£3.65 a pint) and a bus ride (£2.50 return) later and I, along with my Pompey supporting wife and Jon, a Leeds United supporting neighbour who wants to know what it’s like to be amongst Pompey fans, am at the Weston Homes Out in the Middle of Nowhere Community Stadium.
On this March afternoon being in the north stand with the Pompey supporters OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas a joyous celebration of their club, city and football. This was the first time I had ever been in a full stand at a Colchester game in their ‘new’ stadium and it was a slightly odd experience. The gate of 6,504 is Colchester’s second largest crowd of the season ( although the 7,003 v Leyton Orient was made up of loads of flippin’ kids) and easily double the number that usually attend this stadium which could readily be converted into an A12 service station should its current occupant’s ever leave. Despite having a majestic away following of some 2,200 or more, Pompeyites did not make up the majority in the stadium but it felt like they did. It seemed that Colchester supporters were in awe, struck dumb, incapable of getting behind their team. But then, they were spread about three stands when Pompey’s supporters were mostly all in just one.
Every Pompey away game in Division Four must to an extent feel like a home game because there are so many tiddly little clubs in the division, so tiddly you wonder how they manage to maintain professional football. With clubs such as Barnet, Accrington and Morecambe in the division Pompey can’t help but outnumber the supporters of a lot of them and where that isn’t the case they will almost inevitably make more noise than the home support. Going to away games is one of the great joys of being a football supporter; it’s a day out loaded with a morning full of anticipation, the excitement of arrival, followed by the shared experience of the pre-match drink with other supporters and finally getting into the stadium; and that’s all before the match even begins. Sometimes, the match beginning is where it all goes wrong if your team let you down, but it didn’t feel like there was any risk of that today. Despite a miserable performance at home last Saturday, Pompey had won away in midweek at Crawley Town (another tiddler of a club) and had at last moved into an automatic promotion position in the league table.

It’s a good view from all the stands at the new ‘Layer Road’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwith the steep rake of the seating giving a clear line of vision all over the pitch, so there is no real reason to have to stand. But a big following of away fans are often too excited or excitable to even consider sitting down and although club stewards are charged with ensuring everyone is safely sat on their bottom, two dozen stewards are outnumbered a hundred to one and they quickly realise there is no point. A large away support is a draw for the home fans too, because even if they don’t participate themselves they can enjoy the atmosphere created by the noise and exuberance at the other end of the ground.
In terms of attracting spectators Colchester are currently on the crest of a slump with barely 3,000 turning out for the supposed ‘derby’ match against Wycombe a couple of weeks before. The sense of unfamiliarity with their surroundings must have transferred itself from those extra Colcestrians to the Colchester team because they were rubbish. Either that, or they weren’t rubbish and Pompey were absolutely brilliant; the truth surely lies somewhere in between, as it so often does.
Portsmouth scored after about twenty minutes at the Colchester end of the ground; a ‘stooping header’ of the kind favoured by very tall players one would imagine. The scorer Eoin Doyle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA is probably only average height for a footballer though. You’ve got to love a ‘stooping header’, of all headers they are my favourite, although a towering header is more beautiful and for rarity value a crouching or squatting header would be worth seeing.
Once ahead, and with their oh so happy fans behind them like a fair wind, nothing could go wrong for Pompey, if the navigators amongst us had employed our sextants we would have seen that it was written in the stars. Once John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, probably Europe’s best known football fan arrived with his drumming entourage, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the noise and encouragement for Pompey was ceaseless. Half- time was as a blessed relief for Colchester as it was for those in the stands with full bladders. ‘Down below’ the bars and the bogs were thronged and a poster on the breeze block wall of a vomitorium (look it up) thanked Pompey fans for travelling 288 miles to make their visit to day; I felt a bit of a fraud, I would only travel about 15 miles and be home before six.
Refreshed, re-focussed and re-vitalised after the half time-break, Colchester United went 2-0 down within 90 seconds of the re-start as Kyle Bennet, who had sensibly abandoned his ‘little fish’ style haircut of last week by removing its tail, completed a move which left the U’s defence in ruins. That set the pattern for the second half with waves of Portsmouth attacks crashing on the beach in front of the Pompey fans that was the Colchester goal. This was like a glorious day at the football seaside for Pompey’s fans; if the pitch had been sanded they would have made metaphorical castles of celebration and stuck little flags with the Pompey crest in the top of them.
Two more goals followed as Pompey steamed on to leave Col U in their wake. Four-nil up with twenty minutes left it looked like Pompey would score five or six. Pompey fans filled the area in front of the seats and the stewards lined the edge of the pitch and looked nervous. Mr Westwood occupied a platform at the back of the stand in the manner of Ralph Reader back in the days when FA Cup finals were wonderful, before the Premier league had him killed. In his crooked blue and white top hat and blue and white dreads Westwood blew his trumpet and waved his arms deliriously. One fan ran on the pitch when the fourth goal went in. Later the stewards somehow allowed another very large man to get over the perimeter wall and walk amongst them; as they led him away holding tightly on to his arms, he lifted his legs off the ground so they had to carry him, you could see he felt like he was king for a day; his team were 4-0 up he could do anything he wanted.
Full-time was almost a disappointment, it confirmed the result but stopped the fun; the party was over, but when I drove past the stadium the next day I could still hear the cheering… though today it was actually my wife in the passenger seat.